Art Works Blog

How DC Earned Its Stripes: Inside SAAM's "Hot Beat"

Fat stripes. Skinny stripes. Tree-sized stripes and tiny stripes. What Gene Davis did with stripes was not unlike what Vermeer did with domestic life: both artists found endless inspiration within a narrow framework, turning something utterly ordinary into works of striking beauty and intellectual depth.

Davis’s ingenuity with his chosen motif is on display at Gene Davis: Hot Beat, installed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) through April 2. The exhibit features 27 paintings, ranging from the 10’ by 18’ behemoth Red Witch to a dozen "micro paintings," so tiny that Davis once transported several of them to New York in a Sucrets tin.

Thin vertical stripes of many colors

Gene Davis, Dr. Peppercorn, 1967, acrylic, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Florence Coulson Davis. Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

Many of the paintings have not been displayed for years due to their scale, and the exhibition in some ways feels like a joyful reunion between a city and the art it helped inspire. A 1967 NEA Visual Arts Fellow, Davis was a lifelong Washingtonian and a leading figure of the Washington Color School, a loose movement of DC painters who conducted bold experiments with color and canvas in the 1960s. Along with other local color field painters, Davis helped put Washington on the map in terms of art—an unlikely fate for someone who originally worked as a sports journalist and White House correspondent. Davis eventually taught at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, and was appointed a commissioner for SAAM (then the National Museum of American Art) in 1984. In honor of the exhibition, the museum’s front steps are plastered with stripes—an homage to Davis’s 1972 Franklin’s Footpath, a 414’ work that covered the pavement leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a fitting entry to this celebration of a beloved native son.

Multi-colored vertical stripes

Gene Davis, Flower Machine, 1964, magna, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Florence Coulson Davis. Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

And it is quite a celebration. Although Davis rejected the notion that his paintings were op art, it is difficult to stand in front of his mammoth stripes and not feel a dizzying sense of movement—what consulting curator Jean Lawlor Cohen describes as a “retinal push and pull.” He did consider his works “environmental” however, and indeed the exhibition envelops visitors in a world of prismatic color, from neon and pastel to muted and somber. Although he lacked formal training and dove into paintings without a set plan, every color and width of stripe feels incontestable—a testament to Davis’s masterful intuition. “I’m like the jazz musician who can’t read music but plays by ear,” he said. “I paint by eye.”

Davis attributed his keen sense of color to the Phillips Collection, where he studied works by Paul Klee and Pierre Bonnard as a form of self-instruction. In his Pennsylvania Avenue studio, in a ramshackle building adjacent to a Richard Nixon campaign office, Davis held classes for his first students and experimented with his signature stripe until his death in 1985.

Five bright horiizontal stripes

Gene Davis, Wall Stripes No. 3, 1962, acrylic, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

Hot Beat consists of every Davis canvas in SAAM’s collection painted in the 1960s, considered the peak years of his career. In many ways, his work is a product of the time. His stripes echo the era’s artistic embrace of geometry, and his eye-popping hues reflect the optimism of the decade’s early years. “During the sixties I wanted an intensity of color that almost hurt,” said Davis. “Maybe the times called for it.”

At the same time, his work was remarkably original, a dazzling feast for the eyes that still wows with its ability to transform a single shape into such vastly different mutations. Of course, not everyone was initially impressed. At an early show in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, there were comparisons to awnings, and someone reportedly commented, “This reminds me that I need to get new slipcovers.” But did Davis mind? Probably not. He insisted, “Make good art for the moment, and time will take care of the rest.” As is clear when walking through Hot Beat, time has taken care of Davis’s legacy well.

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